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5 types of climate change deniers, and how to change their minds
Talking about climate change doesn't have to be an argument over Thanksgiving dinner. Some people, though maybe not all, can be persuaded.
- Climate change is easily one of humanity's greatest threats, and a mountain of data and evidence support this assertion.
- Despite the evidence, only 71% of Americans believe that climate change is real and primarily driven by human activities.
- People can and do change their minds about climate change. Trying to convince people to change their minds is often more about picking the right target than it is providing the right arguments.
Do facts matter? In an objective sense, yes, of course they do. It's a fact that the Sun rises in the East and sets in the West, and no amount of hemming and hawing will change that. A better question might be: Do facts matter to people?
When we look at topics with seemingly straightforward, fact-based answers, the disheartening conclusion is that no, facts do not matter to people, at least not more than belief. The rate of deadly diseases dropped precipitously after the introduction of vaccines, but a highly anti-vaccination community in North Carolina just had a sizeable outbreak of chickenpox. Eratosthenes used some fairly simple math to demonstrate the Earth is a globe 2,000 years ago, but plenty of people still believe the Earth is flat. Through multiple discrete sources of evidence, 97% of climatologists agree that the Earth is warming, and human behavior is to blame, but only 71% of Americans believe that global warming is happening at all, let alone human-driven global warming.
Reality doesn't care about people's beliefs; it will continue to behave as it will regardless of its polling numbers. So, part of the necessary work in preparing against reality's variety of risks and threats is convincing people that those risks and threats exist in the first place. Can you change the mind of a climate change denier? And if so, how?
Michael Shermer, founder of Skeptic magazine, recently changed his mind about climate change.
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
Reconsidering the evidence
To answer the first question, it does appear that people's minds can be changed. Maybe not everybody, but some people certainly do. The 71% of Americans who believe in climate change is a record high—it may be troubling that the number doesn't match the 97% of climatologists who believe in climate change, but at least its moving in a positive direction.
As the founder of the Skeptic magazine, Michael Shermer makes his living debunking bad science and educating the public on scientific skepticism. Like any good skeptic, Shermer was initially uncertain of climate change, especially the idea that humans were its primary driver. But he changed his mind.
"What turned me around on the global warming issue was a convergence of evidence from numerous sources. […] Because we are primates with such visually dominant sensory systems, we need to see the evidence to believe it, and the striking visuals of countless graphs and charts, and especially the before-and-after photographs showing the disappearance of glaciers around the world, shocked me viscerally and knocked me out my skepticism."
Richard Cizik, an evangelical reverend, also changed his mind after attending a climate change conference:
"I heard the evidence over four days, did a fist to the forehead and thought, 'Oh my gosh, if this is true, everything has changed.' […] I liken it to a religious conversion, and not just because I saw something I'd never seen before — I felt a deep sense of repentance."
A Reddit thread titled 'Former climate change deniers, what changed your mind?' offered a variety of different reasons, including a sense of responsibility for the Earth ("I'd rather unnecessarily make the world a nice place to live than unintentionally contribute to making it less livable for many"), noticing weird weather ("Winters have been unusually warm, with flash major snow storms scattered throughout, and it's gotten to the point where something just blatantly feels wrong about it"), and that climate change deniers don't seem trustworthy ("I realized that many of the other people denying anthropogenic climate change were being funded by the fossil fuel industry").
But the number one reason expressed in the Reddit thread and by the previous examples was a greater understanding of the science behind climate change. Michael Shermer is a skeptic, but skepticism requires paying attention to evidence. The Reverend Cizik attended a climatology conference. In the Reddit thread, 47% of responses attributed their change of mind to the evidence. As one Reddit user put it "… it's just difficult for me to deny it with the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence that supports it. From what I've learned about the process it just makes too much sense to sound fake."
The backfire effect
Based on the above, it seems like providing evidence is the best way to change minds. In an ideal world, evidence would change everybody's mind, but its actually more complicated than that. The above sample has a selection bias—we only heard from people who have successfully changed their minds about climate change. It's much harder to get a clear answer by asking "Climate change deniers, what would change your mind about climate change?"
Anybody who has ever gotten into a political argument is probably familiar with the backfire effect even if they didn't know to call it that. Often, after hearing one factually inaccurate statement, somebody will provide a correction ("well, actually…"). This is referred to as the "information deficit model" of communication; the other side is misinformed, so you'll provide a correction or further evidence they had lacked, and because the other side is a perfectly rational human being who are not under the sway of powerful emotions and beliefs central to their identity, they'll change their mind. It may have worked for the people cited earlier, but it doesn't work for everybody.
In fact, providing corrections and contrary evidence entrenches people in their beliefs: the backfire effect. Researchers have demonstrated this by showing study participants fake news articles that confirmed widespread misconceptions, like the idea that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Then, researchers showed a true news article, like the fact that there was no evidence of WMDs in Iraq. For study participants who supported the Iraq war, seeing the second article made them believe there were WMDs more strongly than they had prior to starting the study.
The backfire effect isn't the only bit of mental gymnastics we do when confronted with contrary evidence. Dr. Tali Sharot, a cognitive scientist, explains how people react to different kinds of evidence and how intelligent people are particularly susceptible to twisting facts in the video below:
Picking your target
So, providing facts—following the information deficit model—doesn't always work. What does? In an article for Yale Climate Connections, Karin Kirk points out that often the most important aspect of persuading a climate change denier lies in picking the right target. She identifies six types of people when it comes to persuadability: the informed but idle, the uninformed, the misinformed, the party-line follower, the ideologue, and the troll.
It will save you a lot of effort to understand the first lesson of the internet: Don't feed the trolls. Trolls don't debate somebody because they care about the topic. They care about the vitriol, the adrenaline, and "winning". Your energy is wasted there.
It can be easy to feel equally frustrated when debating ideologues and people who follow the party line. If the stakes were lower, leaving intractable people alone would likely be the best response, but reversing climate change will take broad support. Ideologues and followers of the party line, though, are highly susceptible to the backfire effect. Instead, take a parallel approach: Discuss the job growth that investing in green energy can provide, remark on how whichever nations don't do so will be left behind in the future, describe how green energy essentially means free energy for all intents and purposes. Not everybody has to believe that climate change is real, and if we all work towards the same purposes for different reasons, what does it matter?
For the misinformed, it's important to describe climate science in a conscientious way. Susan Hassol, the head of the nonprofit organization Climate Communication, says, "Good communication is a conversation, rather than a lecture." Using the Socratic method—asking questions to test a debater's underlying assumptions—can be a respectful way to expose a flawed understanding of a subject.
As for the uninformed, describing the broad, abstract, and globally catastrophic consequences of climate change isn't likely to persuade them to learn more. They've already heard those angles. Instead, focusing on the personal impacts of climate change will be more effective. Will their children be able to enjoy the same climate they did growing up? Will the future economy help make them prosperous?
Informed but idle
The group we should focus on the most are the informed but idle. Often, these people fit into the 71% of Americans who do believe in climate change, they just don't feel the urgency. Here's where you can unleash your doom and gloom. Go nuts! Just don't make it seem like nothing can be done. On the contrary, quite a bit can be done. Climate change is affecting everybody today, and there's still time to make a difference. There's certainly not enough time to permit easy and comfortable inaction, and often people simply lack the motivation. Climate change is nothing less than the complete and utter transformation of our society; if that doesn't offer motivation, what else will?
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Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
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In a recent study, researchers examined how Christian nationalism is affecting the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- A new study used survey data to examine the interplay between Christian nationalism and incautious behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The researchers defined Christian nationalism as "an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture."
- The results showed that Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior.
A pastor at the chapel of the St. Josef Hospital on April 1, 2020 in Bochum, German
Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images<p>Christian nationalists, in general, believe the U.S. and God's will are tied together, and they want the government to embody conservative Christian values and symbols. As such, they also believe the nation's fate depends on how closely it adheres to Christianity.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unsurprisingly then, in the midst of the COVID‐19 pandemic, conservative pastors prophesied God's protection over the nation, citing America's righteous support for President Trump and the prolife agenda," the researchers write.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Correspondingly, the link between Christian nationalism and God's influence on how COVID‐19 impacts America can be seen in proclamations about God's divine judgment for its immorality―with the logic being that God is using the pandemic to draw wayward America <em>back </em>to himself, which assumes the two belong together."</p><p>The logical conclusion to this kind of thinking: America can save itself not through cautionary measures, like mask-wearing, but through devotion to God. What's more, it stands to reason that Christian nationalists are less likely to trust the media and scientists, given that these sources are generally not concerned with promoting a conservative, religious view of the world.</p><p>(The researchers note that they're unaware of any research directly linking Christian nationalism to distrust of media sources, but that they're almost certain the two are connected.)</p>
Predicted values of Americans' frequency of incautious behaviors during the COVID‐19 pandemic across values of Christian nationalism
Perry et al.<p>In the new study, the researchers examined three waves of results from the Public and Discourse Ethics Survey. One wave of the survey was issued in May, and it asked respondents to rate how often they engaged in both incautious and precautionary behaviors.</p><p>Incautious behaviors included things like "ate inside a restaurant" and "went shopping for nonessential items," while precautionary behaviors included "washed my hands more often than typical" and "wore a mask in public."</p><p>To measure Christian nationalism, the researchers asked respondents to rate how strongly they agree with statements like "the federal government should advocate Christian values" and "the success of the United States is part of God's plan."</p><p>The results suggest that, compared to other groups, Christian nationalists are far less likely to wear masks, socially distance and take other precautionary measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior during the pandemic, and the second leading predictor that Americans avoided taking precautionary measures."</p><p>But that's not to say that religious beliefs are causing Americans to reject mask-wearing or social distancing. In fact, when the study accounted for Christian nationalist beliefs, the results showed that Americans with high levels of religiosity were likely to take precautionary measures for COVID-19.</p>
Limitations<p>Still, the researchers note that they're theorizing about the connections between Christian nationalism and COVID-19 behaviors, not documenting them directly. What's more, they suggest that certain experiences — such as having a family member that contracts COVID-19 — might change a Christian nationalist's behaviors during the pandemic.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Limitations notwithstanding, the implications of this study are important for understanding Americans' curious inability to quickly implement informed and reasonable strategies to overcome the threat of COVID‐19, an inability that has likely cost thousands of lives," they write.</p>
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